Videogames and the Family

This is an expanded and updated version of a story that originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.

We all want to do right by our children: make them happy, keep them healthy, and raise them to be fine adults formed by the values of our faith. Having a nonstop spigot of toxic mass media sludge pumped into our homes 24/7 can make this a daunting prospect.

Catholic families really only have two options: either opt out of the media culture completely, or put a filter on that spigot so that only the good things get through. Neither choice is foolproof. We live in this modern society, and opting out of electronic media—movies, television, games, music, cell phones, computers and the internet—is not merely challenging: it’s probably unhealthy. For better or worse, this is a wired world, and our kids need some basic orienteering skills if they’re going to navigate it.

A recent Pew survey found that 97 per cent of children play video games. The Kutner-Olsen study (conducted at the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media and published as Grand Theft Childhood) revealed that children who didn’t play games of any kind tended to have more social problems. Parents may see games as a mind-sucking waste of time that turns normal people into button pushing zombies, but for kids they are a challenge, a bonding opportunity, and a topic of discussion. In contrast to the passive nature of watching television, gaming is active, putting the user in control of how events unfold through exploration, interaction, and problem-solving.

Like any other media, some games are good and some are bad.  And while we often talk about violent games because they are of the greatest concern, it’s important to remember that the majority of games are completely benign: sports, racing, strategy, puzzle, music, and arcade far outnumber those with violent content.

Maintain Control

The question is: do you even let games in your house? Many families already have a PC, which can also do double-duty as a game machine, but your kids would rather be playing a Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, or PlayStation3. Teens and adult gamers tend to prefer the Microsoft Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 because they offer high-octane action titles and superior graphical performance.

If you’re looking for an all-around family console, however, it’s hard to beat the Wii’s ease of use and large library of family friendly titles. Once you have a game console in the house, the most important thing is controlling access. In our household, we limit game time to Fridays and Saturdays during the school year, and maintain a 1:1 ratio of reading time to game time. (In order to earn an hour of game time, a child has to log an hour of reading time.)

When I explain our limitations on game time and access to parents, some are flabbergasted, often remarking that their kids “would never stand for that.” What a fascinating statement. If you do not have the parental authority to regulate your child’s access to media, then you have no parental authority at all.  The console should never be placed in a child’s bedroom, and kids shouldn’t have free access to it.

Fortunately, all three game machines have parental locking codes, which prevent them from playing titles with certain ratings unless a password is entered. Thus, you can bar all M-rated titles from your home, or lock the system so that you can approve when, what, and for how long your kids play.

Going Online

Another decision is whether or not to allow teens to have an online gaming account. (Don’t even think about it for younger kids, unless it’s a completely family friendly title like Club Penguin or Wizard 101.) This can be a subscription-based PC game such as World of Warcraft, or a general console connection service like Xbox Live. The important thing to remember about these account is that actual people are on the other end, and a significant portion of them are not playing with a full deck.

You have almost no control whatsoever of who your children are interacting with, and unless you lock down the communications controls pretty tightly, it is possible for complete strangers to make contact with your kids. It’s possible for people to “friend” your child in a game session, much like they would on Facebook. They can then send messages and even media files and back and forth via the console system.

Since most systems now integrate things like Twitter and Facebook support, we’re seeing a massive convergence of gaming and social networking. No one is quite sure what this all means for privacy and security, but it can’t be good. If you do allow your kids to have online accounts, you need to limit any personal information that’s included in their gamer tags, and definitely do not connect online accounts to social networking sites for minors. (By the way, your minors shouldn’t be on social networking sites anyway, but that’s a whole other story.)

One other thing to remember: most systems allow for in-game voice support, which means any gamer with a headset attached to his controller can be heard in your living room if they’re in a session with your child. Think about that for moment. I’ve heard what goes on in these sessions, and the language is about as bad as you can imagine. Just turn all voice support off. Period. They do not need to be talking to anyone anyway. If you’re savvy enough to lock it down so it’s “friends only,” and they only friend people they personally know, then fine. Otherwise, just turn it off.

Choosing Games

Picking the right game can be tricky, despite all the tools available for evaluating content. I It’s harder than choosing the right TV show or movie, since games are often large and complex, and may contain elements that are only seen in certain circumstances. Although there is no shortage of completely inoffensive games, many releases are awash in violence.

That violence has a fairly wide range of expression. At one end of the spectrum, you might bounce on a character who then disappears in a puff of confetti, while at the other end you can find mutilation and even torture. In between those extremes, you’ll find everything from mild mayhem to realistic and gruesome dismemberment. As a rule, sex and gore warrant an M-rating, but T-rated games are able to show a fair amount of violence as long as they keep the blood to a minimum. You can refer to yesterday’s post for more information on figuring out the ratings system.

In our house, for instance, we debated allowing our son to play military shooters in the house when my son was getting older Although the action primarily involves shooting enemy soldiers, the player is clearly a hero, the violence isn’t particularly graphic, and the entire experience is rich in historical detail. As series like Call of Duty drifted far from that formula, and started wallowing in nihilism and senseless violence, those games simply were no longer allowed. No teenager should be playing the Call of Duty series any more.

Each child is different and, depending upon his or her age, may or may not be ready for this kind of gameplay. On the one hand, it’s the modern equivalent of playing war, particularly since multiplayer modes allow people to compete against each other. One the other hand, parents may reasonably want to avoid any game which puts a young person in the role of killing another person, even an enemy. It’s not an easy call to make. Do you draw the line at non-explicit violence, or allow only violence only against non-humans (aliens or other creatures, for instance)? How can we reconcile games which include any depiction of killing with our faith? Wouldn’t we do better to avoid such things altogether?

Every parent has to struggle with these questions individually. Certainly, violence is part of even benign entertainment: there is no protagonist without an antagonist. Aristotle’s six principles of drama begin with mimesis (the imitation of an action) and end with katharsis (the purgation of excess emotions). Games function by the same rules: they engage our emotions, and then provide the release.

In the stormy world of adolescence, games may actually play a number of important roles, providing socialization, problem-solving, contained fantasy, and an outlet for tension and troubled emotions. Making the right choices for each child at each stage in their life, however, is challenging. There are tools—such as ratings, descriptors, content-rating web sites like commonsensemedia.org, and parental lock-out codes—that can help, but in the end, there’s no substitute for engaged parenting. Sit down, play with your kids, find out what they’re doing and seeing. Maybe you’ll even wind up as gamer yourself.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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